I Will Teach My Children To Survive The New America

My son and daughter found out yesterday that Donald Trump would be their new president. Today, and for the rest of their lives, I need to make them believe that their survival and success is still inevitable.

A nurse checked my blood pressure three weeks ago and then immediately ran the test on my other arm, just in case there was something wrong with the first go-round. On her second attempt, my blood pressure was even higher.

When explaining the numbers to me (high, they were very high) she half-jokingly (or not even half) mentioned the emergency room, said something like, “I’m not going to insist you go to the emergency room with these numbers? But,” and she left the implication hanging between us and I smiled and she asked if I’d experienced tingling in my arms, any bit of vertigo, headaches, and I ticked them off — unconcerned — no, no, no, nope.

As I lay in bed next to my wife this Tuesday night, neither of us asleep but both of us trying, because I had to get on a plane for New York before dawn and she had to wrangle the kids to school, herself to work, I played this exchange in my head over and again.

Blood throbbed in my skull, feeling as if I had wrapped a rubber band tight around the tip of my finger and could see the color purpling and pulsing under the skin, except the rubber band wasn’t pinched around my fingertip, was pinched around my neck, and that purpling pulsed just behind my eyes.

The tips of my fingers tingled and I wondered, Is this it? Am I going to have a stroke?

My grandfather suffered multiple strokes. My father long believed his own multiple strokes were inevitable, and only barely stopped believing this once he outlived his father.

I thought about what was happening — Donald Trump was by then 26 electoral votes away from becoming the president-elect — and my breath grew short and my heart pounded in my chest and I closed my eyes and tried to engage in calming breaths and I remembered the pressure of the blood pressure cuff on my arm and this increased my anxiety, and the only consolation was that I was so worried I might have a stroke and compound the horror of the night for my family that I was able — if only briefly, and wholly uncomfortably — to forget what had just happened.

The next morning, the morning after the country elected a racist, sexist demagogue president, the Israeli cab driver who picked me up in Lexington, Kentucky, (an hour earlier than asked for) to drive me to the airport was surprised when I told him Trump had won the election. Then — God bless him — he tried to console me with the same-same rigmarole of the president lacking the power to really change things (which isn’t true, and is even less true since Republicans now hold majorities in both the House and the Senate, and President-elect Trump will have the ability to appoint an automatic Supreme Court judge). Then he shifted into a rambling story about an Air Force pilot he knows who assured him the president is a figurehead, but really the story was about the bombing missions the pilot ran in Korea and Vietnam, and then about the time he wound up in a full-body cast after ejecting from his F-15 fighter jet when he was shot down over the ocean while spying on Korea, and how his co-pilot was killed on impact while ejecting into the glass canopy that failed to open, and how the pilot survived for 13 hours in the ocean alone until two helicopters and five other F-15s rescued him, and I could not tell if the story was supposed to make me feel better because of survival or was supposed to make me feel better because this pilot knew things, or if it was just a rambling story that the Israeli cab driver dove into because he thought it was a cool story, but by the end of it all, regardless of his intention, I felt better, for a moment, for just a fucking moment, because my mind had spent five minutes unraveling this story instead of contemplating the horror show and stress and tension of the night before.

That feeling didn’t last.

Sitting in the Lexington airport before my flight, I wanted to punch something. I had spent hours running through my mind the things I would say to my children when I saw them next, or when I talked to them on the phone. But I didn’t know what to say.

I didn’t know what to say to my kids, I didn’t know what to say to the people I love, I didn’t know what to say to strangers, most of whom, I realized as I sat in the heart of Kentucky, were probably happy with the results of the election. I didn’t know what to say to the older, white, besuited assholes across the aisle from me who seemed to be concerned only with whether or not Saturday Night Live would keep Alec Baldwin as a cast member (they’d rather SNL did not) now that Trump was going to be president, and I realized it was them — I wanted to punch them. Them and the guy next to me who was watching (maybe hate-watching? But judging by the exit polls, maybe just watching) Ivanka Trump’s introduction of her father in advance of his acceptance speech, and at first I thought maybe I wanted to give him my earbuds so I wouldn’t have to listen to this bullshit, “No really, take them, this is as much for me as for you,” but then I wanted to punch him actually was what I wanted to do. And since I couldn’t punch anyone, what I wanted to do then was take my laptop and throw it hard on the ground and again and again because all I felt I had space for in my whole body was lashing out, at everyone, at everything, and my fingers throbbed again and my head pulsed again.

I realized the thing I needed to do for them, which was to embed them with the sense of their own inevitability.

Instead, I tried to remember the sound of my son laughing, which is infectious, which is maybe the prettiest sound I will ever hear, and then tried to remember the way my daughter looks — so at ease, so intuitively herself — reading a book on the living room couch or walking down the street with her friends or rolling her eyes at me, and I realized the thing I needed to do for them, which was to embed them with the sense of their own inevitability.

Their lives, their survival, their successes — I need to make them understand that these things are inevitable, not because I know them to be inevitable or even because I believe the simple act of believing in your own inevitability will by itself win the day, but because being armed with my own sense of my own inevitability is how I have pushed my way through this world, not so much against the odds, but completely ignorant of the odds, and it seems that they should be also armed.

As soon as I landed in New York, I texted my wife to find out how our kids had reacted to the news that Donald Trump, whom even they (ages 10 and 6) understood to be incompetent and racist and cruel, was going to be the president.

I worried our daughter would start to cry when my wife told her what had happened. In the air, I’d already imagined her asleep and still blissfully unaware of the impending disaster, and then I’d imagined her waking up for school and asking quickly, anxiously, who won, and I’d imagined that if she started crying, her younger brother might also start, and I felt useless and selfish for having left my wife in the middle of all of this just to come to New York to read from a book I wrote before any of this was a possibility.

My hope was that our daughter rolled her eyes, shook her head, sassed the country — she’s 10 and sass is becoming part of her thing and she employs it well, sometimes too well — and that she stormed around the house railing at how ludicrous it all was, and that her brother followed suit, and that they were ready for a fight, which was where I wanted them.

Most likely, I thought, she had landed somewhere in between: a moody pout, the kind she throws around when I try to make her eat something she clearly has no desire to eat (eggs, oatmeal, yogurt) which would be okay, too, as that pout means she will stubbornly dig in her heels and no amount of cajoling or prodding or threatening will convince her to do what she doesn’t want to do. It’s a stubbornness that I can’t stand when it comes to breakfast, but that I will admire when it comes to dismantling a sexist, racist patriarchy.

But then my wife texted back, and her text was simply: A. cried.

Followed by: D. asked me if he was building a wall. I am a mess now.

This, more than anything else so far, undid me.

If I hadn't been on my way to New York, I would have been delivering a lecture to my Intro Creative Writing class this morning on the essay “Margot’s Diary” by S.L. Wisenberg, which speculates on the thoughts and concerns of Anne Frank’s older sister, who kept a diary as well, one that was not saved, and it all just feels so unfortunately synchronous.

Instead, on the plane, I wrote a list that began as a joke, that feels less like a joke now. I listed every dystopian revolution movie and novel I can think of that my children will now need to see or read: The Hunger Games (both the books and the movies), 1984 (not all revolutions succeed), Mad Max (the original and Fury Road), The Matrix, Braveheart, etc, etc. I listed the things I need to teach my children to prepare them for the coming storm:

How to throw a punch / How to run faster / How to find openings through doorways, alleyways, thick crowds of strangers / How to slip your wrist free from the grip of a stranger who’s grabbed you, told you to go the fuck back home / How to fight with words / How to fight with anything else at hand / How to cast a look that is not provoking but that is belittling / Which rules are breakable, how to break them unnoticed / How to speak with a Southern accent / How to lie, how to lie, how to lie / How to find their people / How to convince everyone else that they — my kids — are their people / How to be the kind of Mexican that people forget is Mexican at all / How to get whatever they want, whatever they need, whatever they can / When to stand, how to stand, when to let go, and what should never be let go.

I closed my notebook, put it in my bag, and waited for our inevitable landing.

Manuel Gonzales is the author of THE MINIATURE WIFE AND OTHER STORIES, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the John Gardner Prize for Fiction, and the novel, THE REGIONAL OFFICE IS UNDER ATTACK! A graduate of Columbia University's School of the Arts, he currently teaches creative writing for the University of Kentucky and the Institute of American Indian Arts. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and two kids.

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